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Smith steps up right in nick of time

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Next time, he'll leave the chicken behind.

It was Nov. 3, 2001 and the Bucs were preparing to leave for Green Bay for a game the next day. Rookie cornerback Dwight Smith, whose turn it was to provide food for the players, was (in the eyes of coaches and teammates) terribly late.

Technically he wasn't, arriving around 1:27 p.m. for a 1:30 bus trip to the airport. But there was one problem: everyone else, including the coaching staff, owners and the long list of Pro Bowl players, was sitting in the buses waiting for him.

Smith, who had a few other issues that season, said he understood at that moment what it meant to have people depending on him. He vowed he'd never be late again.

"A lot of players would like to put that on the coach's head, but I knew I messed up by being late," Smith said. "I had to own up to my responsibility. That was on me."

There was a heavy price. The next week the Bucs played in his hometown, Detroit. Smith bought 50 tickets for friends and family members, expecting significant playing time with starter Donnie Abraham out. Instead, the Bucs activated Corey Ivy off the practice squad and played him ahead of Smith.

Smith said the experience in Detroit, where he played very little, was humiliating and educational.

"I was hurt," he said. "It left me in a bad spot, going home, first NFL game in front my people. But the coaches wanted to teach me a lesson. Nip it in the bud and show me that I would not be able to do whatever I wanted to do at this level.

"I think they were saying to me, "This isn't college, Dwight. It's easy to replace you. Don't take this job for granted. Get with the program.' "

Defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said Smith had momentary lapses and needed a wakeup call.

"That experience up in Detroit had some shock value for him," Tomlin said. "It was a case of a young guy needing to understand that he has to always be on the details and I think Dwight learned a lot from that experience."

Since then, Smith has been on board, and 10 games into his second season in the league, the veteran teammates he likely irked that Saturday morning are happy to have him in their corner.

"I think he now understands. He has respect for the game and for what a privilege it is to play in this league," safety John Lynch said. "When you're around people like (then-coach) Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, they have a way of imparting that older, veteran approach. I've been very impressed with the way Dwight has matured. He's been a little rough around the edges to some people, but I think now he understands his role on this team."

Rapidly the role is growing significant. After the Bucs opted not to re-sign Abraham and promote Brian Kelly to starter, Smith became a major player in the Bucs future. The 5-10, 201-pounder is the third corner, which means he plays frequently when opponents go to three-receiver sets.

In the preseason, however, Smith was slowed by a hamstring pull and struggled on the field. It was drawn to his attention.

"Those types of things tend to humble you," Smith said. "You get beat for a few touchdowns and things (and) you tend to look at yourself from a different angle. I went back to the drawing board and said, "Dwight, is this what you really want to do? Then if you want to be the best ever, then go at it like the best ever. Take all the opportunities given to you and take advantage of it.' "

He appears to be doing that. In the first few weeks of the season, Smith recovered physically and found himself routinely tested by opposing quarterbacks, who opted to throw at the inexperienced second-year player rather than the two veteran corners.

"You're the young guy and they want to see if you belong in the league," said Smith, 24. "That's a challenge."

Through the first 10 games this season, Smith has three interceptions _ including a crucial one in Sunday's win over Carolina _ which was three more than he had as a rookie. He also has 21 tackles, a forced fumble and eight passes defensed.

And he also is contributing on special teams, chipping in 14 tackles, one behind team-leader Aaron Stecker.

"When you find your groove playing, you want to continue to play," Smith said. "When you do punt returns, you're jacked up, you're amped, you're ready. You're going to be more physical out there."

Now arrives what could be his biggest challenge. If Barber is limited against the Packers because of his fractured thumb, Smith will be called on to replace him.

Tomlin said in their system Smith is not looked at as a backup, but as a starter.

"We only have one standard for all our players and he's playing at that standard," Tomlin said. "He's a member of the unit and he wouldn't be if we didn't have complete confidence in him."

Added Lynch: "Every time I look around, or at least 60 percent of the time, he's there. We've grown to trust in him. He's a big part of what we're trying to do."

ROSTER MOVE: The Bucs signed running back Tony Taylor to the practice squad Tuesday and released center/guard Jason Scukanec, who was signed to the practice squad Oct. 29. Taylor, 5-9, 191-pounder out of Northwestern (La.) State, split time last year on Dallas' practice squad and 53-man roster and played in one game.